Tatum O’Neal Opens Up on Dating Michael Jackson, Child Stars, Her New Show on OWN
The actress dishes to Marlow Stern on drugs, “dating” Michael Jackson, and her docuseries Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals, premiering on OWN.
While the perils of child stardom in Hollywood have been well documented—from Judy Garland to Lindsay Lohan—few celebrity bildungsromans are as heartbreaking as that which befell Tatum O’Neal.
After she became the youngest Oscar winner in history at age 10, taking home the hardware for her role in Paper Moon—opposite her father, Ryan O’Neal (Love Story)—Tatum’s life quickly spiraled out of control. Motivated in part by alleged physical and emotional abuse by her father, she began smoking marijuana at 12, and soon got into Quaaludes and cocaine. That same year, Tatum alleged her then 18-year-old pal, actress Melanie Griffith, dragged her into an opium-fueled orgy. At 15, she was left abandoned when her father ran away with the former pinup goddess, Farrah Fawcett, and before she reached the age of 16, Tatum had been molested by two men and two women (one of the men was her father’s longtime friend). When she was 18, she started using cocaine to lose weight, and in 1995, following the end of her tumultuous eight-year marriage to tennis star John McEnroe—and three children together—she got hooked on heroin.
All of this was chronicled in her 2004 New York Times bestselling memoir, A Paper Life, of which her reportedly furious father told the New York Daily News, "It is a sad day when malicious lies are told in order to become a 'best-seller.’” Love truly is a battlefield.
Tatum has been sober for the past seven years, but made front-page headlines in 2008, when she was arrested purchasing crack cocaine near her apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The actress opens up about her journey toward recovery and reconnecting with her father in her recent memoir, Found: A Daughter’s Journey Home, and the reality docuseries Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals, which premieres June 19 on the Oprah Winfrey Network. In a wide-ranging interview with The Daily Beast, she discusses her relationship with her father, the 2008 drug arrest, “dating” Michael Jackson, the tough road for child stars like Lindsay Lohan, and much more.
You say in your recent memoir, Found, that writing your first memoir, A Paper Life, didn’t really bring the catharsis you had hoped, and instead reopened some old wounds.
It is what it is. It was a book and it told a story that was sad, and deep, and painful. This book is telling a different story. It’s telling of how I can live the best life that I can when I wasn’t really wanted, in a way. Maybe I was wanted by a fan base because of my work, but I didn’t feel that I was ultimately wanted by my own parents, which was a weird feeling.
A Paper Life seemed to be a purging of your many demons, whereas this book seems to be a lot more reflective.
It’s where I’m at then, and it’s where I’m at today; sort of telling who I am and where my journey is. If you end up with say, a heroin addiction, some people end up with it because of nothing. Their parents were perfect. For me, I had a lot of pain and bruising that happened to my soul, and I didn’t feel wanted, so in writing the first book, it took a minute for me to think about how to heal yourself. Is it writing a book, is it talking to a therapist, is it taking drugs, is it not taking drugs? It’s about figuring stuff out.
Were you motivated to write this book in part because of the way the media treated you during your 2008 drug arrest?
The cop was extremely joyful, when he found out who I was, to have made this arrest. He really wanted to make me feel bad and embarrass me, so that’s why he told the story about me trying to get out of it [by allegedly saying “Do you know who I am?”]. I’d ask anybody to be in a situation like that, whether you’re getting a DUI or a speeding ticket, how they’d feel? They’d try to get out of it, too. But it’s New York and I’m an actress. If the press wanted to do to me what they’re doing to Anthony Weiner—I mean I didn’t cheat on my wife, hold my penis and send pictures. I did something illegal, and I got caught. And actually, it ended up being a good thing because it stopped the run I may have gone on.
One of the things that seemed to buoy you toward recovery is your move to L.A. For many people, New York City is such a populated place, but it often fosters a sense of loneliness and isolation because people are so self-involved.
That’s a really interesting observation. I wasn’t from here. My ex-husband [John McEnroe] is from here, and I moved with him. But there was no way that after all the custody fights, and after fighting so hard, I was going to leave with my kids still here, because that would mean I’d leave them with [McEnroe]. That was not going to happen. When Emily, my daughter, got into school in California, that was my time to move. And a shift did happen. But it’s just part of a shift, not the entire thing.
You say in your book that Jon Hamm warned you against doing a reality show, so I’m wondering why you chose to go that route with Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neal’s?
The term “reality show” is really scary because there’s been some really bad programming. What we did was something very different. It’s deep. I sort of thought it would be fun to work with my dad again, in some weird way. He’s never yet said he’s the guy that I’ve portrayed him as in my book—first book or second book—so I thought perhaps he’d have that “aha moment” and he’d be like, “You know what, I’m really sorry, Tatum. You didn’t have to have the life you had, and I’m here, and I take responsibility.” That didn’t happen. But oh well. I think it’s interesting television.
One of the things I was taken aback by in the book was your father trying to pick you up at Farrah Fawcett’s funeral.
My father doesn’t really remember what I look like. He sees blond hair, a black dress, and to him, that’s just a chick. A girl. He didn’t know it was me, so he kind of swooped in, and I had to remind him he was 70, and I was his daughter. That’s the second time that’s happened to me with him, but you know, he lives in another world.
Farrah and Michael Jackson passed away the same day. That’s a pretty full-circle thing for you, to have your first “public” boyfriend and your father’s great love that sort of drove a wedge between you two, pass at the same time.
[Michael] was somebody I knew and I did go on a date with, but I don’t know about my first “public boyfriend.” Let’s call that the media’s take on my first “public boyfriend.” First of all, how sad to lose two f***ing icons. Secondly, it sort of canceled Farrah out a little bit because she didn’t get the moment that I think she deserved and could have had. At the same time, this is life, man. This isn’t about who’s going to get the better farewell.
It’s interesting, because you say in your book that your father was disapproving of all your boyfriends except for Michael Jackson. He said he knew how much Michael “adored” you.
He liked Michael Jackson but he likes famous people. He’s that guy. But I don’t think he wanted me to have any dates the same way I didn’t want him to have any dates.
Aside from Judy Garland, you were one of the first child stars who succumbed to the perils of fame and celebrity—namely, drugs. And now, we have Lindsay Lohan, who seems to be going down a similar path.
My experience of that, and my opinion, is that for human beings, you need to grow into the world and figure out who you are in the world, and make your own identity. If you’re young and making your identity through what other people, or your fan base, think of you, there’s a loss of perspective. So, when you reach adolescence and start to change, it becomes difficult to do that. Are you what they think of you? Are you what you think of you? You don’t know any more who you are. That’s the problem of getting into a field where you’re really at the mercy of public opinion.
Does it worry you then, since you’ve been down this road, that stars are getting younger and younger these days?
I feel like as long as your parents are like Dakota [Fanning’s], you’ll be okay. As long as you have parents who are standing by you. Let’s face it: it’s not really reality if you’re making more money than most adults make in their lifetime, and people love you that have never met you. That’s going to change things on the schoolyard. With that kind of unreality, people lose sight of little brains versus adult brains. It’s easy to lose track with parents who are oblivious or in it for the wrong reasons or have their own problems.
One of the incidents in your book that I found particularly troubling was with Gavin, your father’s longtime friend who molested you, and how your father invited you over to his home even though he was expecting him at the same time.
I don’t know if he even admits that happened. He read the [recent] book and said he came off “like a boob.” It’s such a dumb way of him verbally portraying himself. I think he’s oblivious. We’ve never, ever talked about it in person. And as far as acknowledging what’s happened to me, I’m moving on. I’ve written books and made a show about it, he can do whatever he wants. I know the truth. I live comfortably with myself, and I wouldn’t want to live in his shoes, to be honest. I’m not the only one who said he did what he did. My brother says it, too. And [Ryan] has been arrested and shot at my brother. You start to go, “Okay, you go ahead and deny it. It’s only going to hurt your piece of mind.” Maybe he’s got a brain damage thing where it turns off and turns on. I don’t know.
So he’s perhaps bipolar?
Yeah, maybe. He’s just never gotten it checked out.
What was the big takeaway from filming your docuseries on OWN, and how did it impact you and your fathers’ relationship?
The truth is, it was hard and sort of painful at times, because I was on this truthful mission trying to get him to talk and acknowledge me. Now, I’m going to start crying. [Tearing up] If you don’t acknowledge me even for who I am today, as the mother that cares for her children or a person that’s alive and not shooting drugs, that’s what I wanted. I didn’t even care if he said, “I’m sorry.” But, it didn’t happen. And that’s interesting to watch because I’m not alone; it happens in a lot of families, where sons don’t get their father’s love, or daughters don’t get their father’s love. It’s a universal problem.
What was Oprah’s level of involvement, and have you heard feedback from her on the show?
The good news is we didn’t hear from her and now she’s on vacation, so my understanding is that she loves it. I’m a huge fan. Did she call me personally? No. But that’s okay.
Did you send your father a manuscript of the book before it came out?
Well, he wanted me to, but I didn’t. I sent him the book right before it came out. I think he thought I was going to write an “I love you” book to my dad, because of the first book, that went, “Dear Dad, I’m so sorry for hurting your ego and pride in my first book, but here is an ‘I’m sorry’ book.” So, anything that wasn’t completely loving in this book, he wouldn’t have liked.
Now that this book is out, and you’re finished filming the first season of your docuseries, how would you characterize you and your father’s relationship today?
We are good, this moment. That is not to say that if I felt like I was in any way disrespected, or if he tries to push me or get me to do something for him—he’s coming to New York and we’re going to do press together, and they’re going to ask him questions he’s not going to like, and his way is to look at little me, Tatum the daughter, and have me try to get them to stop. Or, he’ll blame me for putting him in that position. If he starts to do that then we’re not okay, and I’ll just be like, “You’re on your own.” But that may not happen, either. I’m always sort of wary, but right now we’re good.
Will there be a second season of the show?
Who knows. It’s up in the air. They have to hear back on ratings and other stuff.
What are your future plans?
I’m in the process of building a brand, if you will. I’m talking about a brand that could help other people, so with books, or speaking, or shows that I produce. The thing that helps me get better is the feeling that it’s helped someone else. Because of that, I’m grateful, and that is what’s inspired me to keep going.